The Dollars & Sense of Financial Abuse: The Hidden Cancer in an Abusive Relationship

I was smart, educated, and well off. I lived in a beautiful 10,000 square foot home on ten acres at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. I had three boys and was married to a charismatic self-starter who had a reputation for being a go-getter, a talented and inventive man whose self-sufficiency was known to all. We started businesses together, we bought and flipped houses with tremendous success, we were landlords of several apartment complexes, we owned and operated a thriving dance studio, and we were well known in our small town as the couple who got things done, who “had it all.”

And we were also masters of continuing our charade so that the dirty little secret I was keeping could stay just that: a secret.

Financial abuse is like underground warfare: the battle is being waged, but many times it’s unbeknownst to the victim since there is no clear and present danger (such as the obvious danger in a war on a battlefield or in a physically abusive relationship).

It took me over sixteen years to recognize the abuse in my own marriage, so how is one to spot the signs? What exactly does financial abuse look like?

In my case, it looked exactly like this:

  • I was frugal and smart when it came to how I spent money, but in his eyes I couldn’t get it right and he always had a comment about what I bought, such as items like shampoo or lotion or shaving cream, wondering why I couldn’t get by with the Ivory soap he used like a cure-all for every cleaning need (even his hair, which I secretly believed was the reason he was going bald).
  • Whenever we shopped for a large purchase together, such as a car, he forewarned me not to talk so that he could “take care of making the deal.” If I did start talking too much in front of the salesperson (such as if I expressed my interest in a certain make or model), he would give me “the look” that warned me to be quiet, and later tease or admonish me for being so emotional.
  • I managed our personal finances and was given an allowance each month, which he monitored and chastised me for if I couldn’t stay within the budget due to unforeseen circumstances (such as medical bills, school, etc).
  • Like clockwork, every month he would warn we were close to “losing it all” even when our financial situation said otherwise, which caused both me and our children to live in a constant state of fear that we weren’t safe and tomorrow it could all be gone.
  • He frequently made comments about the size of our large home and how we were vulnerable to thieves or those who wanted to hurt us because of our financial position, which led to many sleepless nights when I happened to be alone at the house with my children.
  • He managed all of our business accounts, which were many. I never knew how much money at any given time was in any of them, and if I asked I was told “Don’t worry about it; I’m taking care of it.”
  • I had one bank account that he had access to, into which he put my monthly allowance or any other money he felt generous enough to “give.”
  • Since we were in the business of flipping houses and building apartments, he opened up a separate Home Depot card in my name for his use. I never saw a statement nor knew at any given time what the balance was.
  • We bought, remodeled, and sold many homes together, at which point I would go into whatever bank he would tell me and sign my name. If I ever asked for clarification on what I was signing I was given brief answers. If I pressed him for more clarification, he became angry and scolded me for not trusting him.
  • Once I made a $25 mistake in my checkbook that led to a bank fee of $35. He brought this incident up time and again to remind me how I didn’t handle money very well. Once he made a $250,000 mistake in calculating the loan amount for buying the land to build our home on, but I was forbidden to bring this up or ever speak about it again.
  • There came a point when I couldn’t balance my checkbook anymore because he was often taking or depositing money out of my sole account. Unbeknownst to him I had begun to write my frustrations on my bank statements when I received them in the mail (as shown in the photo for this piece).
  • Whenever we traveled, he used one of his many credit cards to pay for our trips, which he would pay off in full at the end of every month no matter the amount. When I traveled alone or with our children, I would use my credit card (I only had one) and at the end of the month would have to make a payment out of my monthly allowance. Because of this, my credit card soon maxed out.
  • Sometimes I could convince him to help me pay off my credit card or provide me with extra money if I was sweeter than normal to him, which involved either acting like a little girl or a sexual favor (or sometimes both).
  • When we were designing our new home, there was an error in the blueprints that I found after the construction had already begun. When I pleaded with him to fix the mistake, he promised to do so for a sexual favor in exchange, which I did in the place and time of his choosing (early afternoon, top tier of a parking garage in the middle of town).
  • During the Christmas holiday every year, I was responsible for buying everyone’s gifts, including for each of our extended families and our children. In January when I would receive the credit card statement, I still had to use my monthly money for any minimum payment, which caused my balance to constantly grow.
  • He always had cash on him and in his office, and frequently used hundred-dollar bills when he was traveling so that it was impossible to ever know how much he was spending.
  • While he criticized me for my spending habits (even though the majority of what I spent was on our family, our children, or necessities), he spent thousands of dollars to travel to his home country in Central America, sometimes visiting up to four times a year, and this at the same time that he was warning of our dire financial situation.
  • At the dentist’s office for my children’s exam, my only credit card was declined and I didn’t have enough in my personal account to cover the bill. This happened again when one of my kids needed glasses, at which point I called from the store and asked him to help me pay for it. His reply: I should have budgeted for it.
  • Because of my credit card being maxed out, I applied for a new one. He intercepted it, destroyed it, then impersonated me over the phone with the company and closed the account.
  • When we began marriage counseling once a week, I had to pay for it out of my personal account, which meant I had to take an additional $500 out of my monthly allowance for this one expense.
  • After I finally left him and began divorce proceedings, I moved back with our two younger children to my home state of Arizona and moved in with my mother. During the year-long divorce, he cut me off from our income and sent what he deemed “appropriate” for my monthly allowance. I had to continually borrow money from my parents to pay my legal fees and for general living expenses.
  • I left everything in Wyoming, including furniture, household goods, personal items, and therefore had to purchase things such as a toaster or vacuum when I moved to Arizona, which I had to put on credit cards and therefore had balances continue to grow.
  • While my children and I struggled financially throughout the divorce process, he imported a Russian girl who was the age of our oldest son to move into our large home. Whenever they would visit our children in Arizona, he would rent high-end cars, stay in luxury hotels, and take them out to expensive dinners, while my credit cards continued to grow and I still lived with my mother.
  • Once when I pleaded with him during the divorce to provide me with additional funds for expenses, he refused. When I complained that this wasn’t fair, he replied with Well I guess you shouldn’t have left me then.

Along with emotional and mental abuse, financial abuse acts like a cancer, growing undetected since there are no outward signs — like a bruise or broken bone — to signal something is wrong. Financial abuse takes no prisoners and has no bias. Like death, it doesn’t care about your income, your social status, your education, or your race. Financial abuse acts as an agent of furthering hardship in that a victim is already weakened by the physical/emotional abuse, then rendered nearly immobile by the additional financial assault inflicted by an abuser.

In my marriage, I wasn’t aware I was a pawn in a game he was playing, which meant I was always on the losing end. Without any outside support, without anyone I could talk to and share my circumstances, while also raising three children and dealing with the consequences of being in an emotionally abusive relationship, and without such legal aid during a divorce process that would disallow any one person to be in total control of the finances, even when I did try and stand my ground or take my power back, I surrendered quickly out of exhaustion and desperation.

It was only years after escaping when I finally put the puzzle pieces together and realized how financial abuse had been one of the key ingredients in the toxic cocktail my abuser was having me drink. I didn’t drink it because I was weak or stupid or deficient in some way. I did so because I loved him and I trusted him, and financial abuse is like any other abuse where it doesn’t present itself on the first, second, or third date but after a victim has already fallen for and been groomed by the very one they love most in the world.

Today, having acquired my Master’s degree in Hindsight, I share my story in the hopes that those who are currently suffering in the darkness of financial abuse will recognize the signs and therefore be able to take the steps forward to do something about it. If we are living in the darkness, we will remain unaware of it until someone else shines a light to show us where we truly are. Then and only then can we wake up, assess the reality of our situation, and make the changes needed to move fully into the light.

By writing this piece regarding financial abuse, it is my hope that my story can be that light.

And to all of you still in that darkness, you are not alone.